2011-06-11 / Columnists

Nature Notes

Mackinac Island Wildflowers Make Brief Spring Appearance
By Patricia Martin

This week is the beginning of Lilac Festival, and these beautiful cultivated flowers are beginning to bloom. Throughout the festival, walks and talks will be presented by Jeff Young (check the festival schedule for times and places), but instead of writing about lilacs this week, I want to focus on some of our spring wildflowers, which are out for such a brief time.

Because of the dry weather we’ve had in the last couple of weeks, the spring ephemerals are passing quickly. The petals of many of the large-flowered trillium are already turning from white to pink, a sure sign of aging. The hepatica and the trout lilies have already passed, so we’re now seeing late spring flowers.

One of the showiest of the late spring flowers is an orchid, the yellow lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium Calceolus or C. pubesens, depending on your authority). These protected species bloom in late spring in swamps, bogs, and wet woods and they seem to prefer sunlit areas with light shade and they seem to like our limey soil, unlike some of the other lady’s-slippers, which prefer acid conditions. Some of the best displays can be seen right now along North Bike Trail and Sugarloaf Road, where some clumps number more than 30 plants.

The flower of the yellow lady’s-slipper is usually single, and as its name implies, yellow, and is formed into an inflated pouch, the “slipper” or “moccasin.” Like other orchids, they have three petals and three sepals. There seems to be only two sepals, as two of them have fused together. The lower petal forms the pouch, which is often one to two inches long with an opening on the top. Two of the lateral around the “slipper” have been modified into long, narrow, twisted ribbons often mottled with brown or purple. The sepals form an upper and lower hood, which looks similar to the lateral petals, but not as long. The reproductive organs are found toward the posterior of the “slipper.” Pollination occurs by insects, when it occurs, and the small seeds that are produced are car- ried away by the wind. When several plants are seen together, they’re usually vegetative offsets of the parent plant.

Striped Coralroot Striped Coralroot The round stem of the lady’sslipper stands about one to two feet tall and has three to six broad, parallel veined leaves that somewhat sheath the stem. The flower is held above the foliage on a long stalk that has a single leafy bract behind the flower.

Another orchid that has appeared is one that is parasitic, the striped coralroot (Corallrhiza striata). In late spring and early summer, the purple to reddish striped flowers appear on a spike of 10 to 20 blossoms. These are the largest flowers found in any of the species of coralroot. The spike itself stands up to 16 inches tall. Individual flowers are drooping and up to a little more than an inch. The plant seems to be leafless, but there are usually three to four scale-like bracts near the base of the stem. This plant lacks chlorophyll and so has no green on it so overall the plant appears in shades of purple, brown, or yellow. These plants are often found in clumps. The roots of this plant are thick and coral-like, hence the name.

Yellow Lady’s-slipper Yellow Lady’s-slipper These plants are found in both coniferous and deciduous woods. For years they’re been thought to be saprophytes, living on dead material in the soil, but recent studies have revealed that they’re probably parasites living on other plants that they’re connected to by microrhize (tiny fungal filaments). So if one wanted to successfully transplant the coralroot, one would have to transplant the coralroot, the microrhize, and the host plant, basically an impossibility. I’ve found these plants in my horse’s turnout, along Rock Trail, and along Sugarloaf Road, among other places.

Cowslip Cowslip The striped coralroot is protected by law, as are the other coralroots and other orchids that can be found on the Island at various times of the year.

One other plant that I would like to particularly mention is not an orchid, but is in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and is called marsh marigold or cowslip (Caltha palustris). These plants produce conspicuous yellow flowers, usually one half to two inches across with five to nine “petals” (some of which are actually sepals). The leaves are smooth, shiny, rounded or heartshaped, often as large as a person’s hand. They’re indented at the base with saw-toothed margins.

The stems are stout, erect, and hollow and are between one and two feet tall.

These plants like wet places, and will even grow in shallow water. Generally they grow in colonies, blanketing extensive areas rather than being seen as individual plants. On Mackinac, cowslips grow in abundance along a small spring that feeds Croghan Water, which is located along the north end of British Landing Road.

These are but a few of the flowers that are blooming right now, so get out to the woods to enjoy them, and don’t forget to smell the lilacs that are just opening around town.

Trish Martin is a year-around resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master’s degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

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